With the league's labor negotiations fluid -- see the possible impact of the 8th Circuit Court ruling in favor of the owners -- we don't know how quickly free agency will begin, how long it will last or the rules it will be executed by. And throughout the NFL, everybody's flying blind in that regard.
"If anybody tells you they know the way free agency will unfold, what it will be like, they're just guessing, because no one's been in this situation before,'' one veteran NFL club executive told me this week. "We're all waiting to find out.''
The anticipation, of course, is that a spasm of free-agent spending will commence at the stroke of 12:01 a.m. on whatever day the NFL's annual meat market is scheduled to open. After all, there has been speculation that the 2011 salary cap could wind up north of $140 million, and if new rules are implemented in the labor deal mandating teams spend at least 90 percent of the cap allowance, there figures to be plenty of teams willing to throw a lot of cash around very quickly at a laundry list of available talent.
One longtime NFL general manager I talked to this week foresees a scenario in which the new general manager and/or coaching regimes around the league are going to be particularly tempted to whip out the check book and start writing fat ones. His reasoning? After taking over in January, all they've done is work the draft and sit on their hands for the past six months, and they're itching to start the major roster renovation that almost every new administration undertakes. And that could make for multiple examples of the kind of signing frenzy the Washington Redskins used to annually execute en route to defending their Offseason of the Year title.
"What's going to happen is you're going to have some inexperienced GMs and owners go crazy early on,'' the longtime general manager said. "They're going to think, 'I've got to go out and do something crazy. This is my window of opportunity.' But I think that's absolutely the wrong move. There are so many free agents and so many guys out there that if you're just patient, you can wind up with some good players at really good value and not put yourself out there [at risk] with a couple mega-deals.
"That's going to happen, I promise you. A couple of these guys are going to say, 'Hey, we're going to be aggressive. We've got a fat wallet and we're raring to go.' I just hope those teams are in our division. Because when you go back over the history of free agency, it rarely works out with the big-money guys. Just look at the last five years or so, with Albert Haynesworth, Joey Porter or Terrell Owens.''
If you had to draw up a list of potential big spenders in free agency, based on the inexperience factor as it relates to new or relatively inexperienced front office/coaching/ownership regimes, I suppose you'd be looking in the direction of Tennessee, Seattle, San Francisco, Kansas City, Denver, Carolina and Cleveland. Not that all of those clubs traditionally go the overspending route. You could make a case that clubs like Atlanta, Tampa Bay and St. Louis have obvious needs and the money to burn to meet them, or that the Jets could once again steal the majority of the headlines just by re-signing their own big-name free agents, Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Antonio Cromartie.
But it'll be intriguing to see which teams jump into the free-agent pool head first, and which teams wait for the many relative bargains that are likely to surface after the initial feeding frenzy abates. Even with the increased dollars available, the smartest teams still will likely shop selectively in free agency and use the new funds for locking up their own free agents or potential free agents in long-term deals. Peyton Manning, Michael Vick, Chris Johnson, DeSean Jackson, Sidney Rice and Robert Mathis are players who come quickly to mind in that category.
"The advantage is not going to lie with the teams that have fewer or more free agents,'' the longtime GM said. "I think the advantage is going to lie with the teams that have experienced people running things. People who understand that if you give out a couple mega-deals, and a guy gets hurt or doesn't play to your level of expectation, you've screwed your team for four or five years. Those players, there are expectations they can't meet. They can't play at the same level they've been playing at. They've got to play at a higher level now. And not many of them do.''
In talking to several general managers or club executives this week, I didn't get the sense any of them were sweating the details of how free agency and the condensed player acquisition period will unfold once the lockout ends. They've all done their homework and seem poised to jump into the thick of things as soon as they get the go-ahead from the league. And to a man, they say they've received next to no guidance from the league on how free agency will operate, given that it's still a topic being negotiated in the labor talks.
"Let me know when it's done, and what the rules are, and we'll react,'' the longtime GM said. "It's not rocket science. The last thing I want is to have to prepare six different scenarios, knowing that five of them were a waste of my time. I don't need any guidance. What are they going to tell me? It's either you've got two weeks to sign your free agents and rookies, or you have a week, or you have three days. It doesn't make any difference to me. Eventually they're going to tell us how many days we've got, and then we'll go to work.''
Some club executives said they were expecting very short windows of time between the end of the lockout and the start of free agency, but another told me he'd be surprised if the NFL threw open the personnel shopping season just two or three days after an agreement is ratified.
"It's got to be longer than that,'' said the veteran club executive. "But everything about free agency will be predicated off the goal of getting to training camp on time. It'll be kind of like studying for finals in college. To get ready, you might have to read 10 pages a night. If you don't do it, you wind up having to read 20 pages a night. And if you get to the night before [the final], you might have to read 500 pages. Right now we can probably still read 20 pages a night and be ready, but if this thing doesn't get settled soon, we might get to a point where we have just three or four days to deal with everything.''
Whatever form free agency takes, it figures to go fast and furious at the start -- as it does to some degree every year -- and provide NFL fans with something of their first true football fix in months. But little about this offseason of labor limbo has been predictable, and not everyone will like the shortened free agency period or consider the process equitable to all 32 teams. That's a given.
"Will it be fair? I don't know if it can be fair or not because we all have different circumstances to deal with,'' the longtime GM said. "Some of us have a lot of our own players who are free agents. Some teams have rookies at the top of the draft that are always tougher to sign than those in the middle or the end. Some teams have a lot of guys under contract, and some teams have a lot of restricted guys.
"We're all on a level playing field not knowing yet what the rules will be. But beyond that, we're not. And all 32 teams are never on a completely level playing field. We always have different circumstances to deal with. That's reality. We're prepared to get back to work whenever we're told to get back to work. We're just waiting for that call.''